Tuesday, September 09, 2014
What's Wrong with 'Western Education'?
One strand of argument in many developing countries is that western education destroys local cultures and ways of living, and causes misery and destruction. This is at the heart of some of the most potent social debates that are going on, in India and in many other places. Both sides of the argument present this as a black-and-white thing: Either western education has brought all progress, or it has destroyed all good things that ever was. As usual, the truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.
Many well-meaning western academics and intellectuals, who have no intent to harm anyone else, perhaps see anything less than wholehearted appreciation of what they do as an act of ungratefulness. After all, 'western science' is primarily responsible for the great improvements in standards of living in the last three hundred years. What's called Western Education spreads the message of scientific progress and rationality, and this has been the argument for spreading it even for the most benign of its advocates.
While the benefits of such education should be self-evident, there are two sets of arguments which are presented against the same. Western observers, supremacist or not, tend to reject these out of hand - but increasingly, with new ideologies in ascendance across the developing world, they should perhaps be given some consideration.
The first of these is the revivalist argument. While Western Science may have wrought great progress, its spread is closely associated with colonialism. This is a time of decline rather than affluence for many countries in Asia and Africa. While it is easy to claim, sitting in one of the Western metropolitan centres, that life has got better, life has got worse with the spread of western education for great many people across these continents. Societies have broken down, norms have changed, and life has become miserable. For societies which were affluent before, such as India and China, it is easy to associate such decline with Western influence: It can be empirically observed, just like all the claims of progress made in Western societies.
The second argument is more nuanced, which does not deny the progress made by Western science and the need to learn about it. However, proponents of this view questions how Western Education has established the superiority of one form of knowledge over the other, and failed to create indigenous abilities to think and to progress. This view treats the progress made by Western science as a common human heritage, which needs to be celebrated, just as the technological and philosophical progress made by the ancient Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Inca and other societies. But the spread of such education was not 'organic', such knowledge was not assimilated and used to create progress and affluence: Rather, Western Education was used as a tool of power, to create divisions in society and create a tiny ruling franchise. It was imposed rather than accepted, and its aim was to trivialise and eventually destroy all social norms, not just superstitions as were claimed.
The debate about Western Education in the developing societies is not just between the evangelists of the Western Education and those against it, but more so, between these two strands of argument. Indeed, the revivalists, with their simple but crude historical associations, get more prominence, and pitted against those public views in the West, which use an equally simple and crude empirical association. In this argument, it comes down to an argument about whose fault was it, and eventually an implicit debate about which race was better and more progressive.
The second argument, though, which accept the common human heritage of progress but argue against the power networks and intentions that underlie the spread of western-style education, needs greater consideration from everyone, not just the people from developing societies. The history of progress can be read as a continuous tension between those in power setting the tone of conversation and the people changing the conversation: Science or philosophy or culture did not come top down as imperial edicts, but were nurtured by the amateurs, and was often suppressed by the authorities. More than a century of state-sponsored education may have obscured this fact in the West, but almost all progress starts from the fringe and happens through assimilation. Imposition of a better way of thinking, be it an exogenous imposition as on a traditional society or an indigenous imposition by the elite of any society (which may be the case for some revivalist traditions), serve to maintain a certain structure of power but hardly results in better lives for many.
It is possible, therefore, to view this Western versus Eastern education debate not so much as a culture war but a fundamental question about what education does. The standard economic view, that it must produce the stewards of a society, can be contrasted with the ideals that it must enable freedom in thinking and in doing. One could argue that all education in the classroom inevitably align itself to the first, because of the sponsorship it must need, financial and intellectual, from those holding those resources in a society: For real freedom, one must find, perhaps found, an education without the classroom, a culture of learning, an approach to knowledge as a common human heritage.
Therefore, the arguments against Western Education is really about what education is for. This is, at its core, a debate about the context rather than the content of education.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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